Bias from the Bottom: Week 1
Sunday, March 20, 2016
One of the great themes of the Bible, which begins in the Hebrew Scriptures and is continued in Jesus and Paul, is called “the preferential option for the poor”; I call it “the bias toward the bottom.” We see the beginnings of this theme about 1200 years before Christ with an enslaved people in Egypt. Through their history God chooses to engage humanity in a social and long-standing conversation. The Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery, through twists and turns and dead ends, finally brings them to the Promised Land, eventually called Israel. This is a standing archetype of the perennial spiritual journey from entrapment to liberation. It is the universal story.
Moses, himself a man at “the bottom” (a murderer on the run and caring for his father-in-law’s sheep), first encounters God in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Like so many initial religious experiences, this happens while Moses is alone—externally and interiorly. The encounter is nature-based and transcendent at the same time: “Take off your shoes; this is holy ground” (see Exodus 3:5). This religious experience is immediately followed by a call to a very costly social concern for Moses’ own oppressed people, whom he had not cared about up to then. God said, “I have heard the groaning of my people in Egypt. You, Moses, are to go confront the Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go” (see Exodus 3:9-10).
There, at the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the perfect integration of action and contemplation. First, the transformative experience takes place through the burning bush. Immediately it has social, economic, historical, and political implications. How did we ever lose sight of this when our Scriptures and tradition begin this way? The connection is clear.
There is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a very different way. After an encounter with True Presence you see things quite differently, and it gives you freedom from your usual loyalties and low-level payoffs—the system that gave you your security, your status, your economics, and your very identity. Your screen of life expands exponentially. This transformation has costly consequences. Moses had to leave Pharaoh’s palace to ask new questions and become the liberator of his people.
I believe the Exodus story is the root of all liberation theology, which Jesus fully teaches and exemplifies, especially in the three synoptic Gospels (see Luke 4:18-19). Jesus is primarily a healer of the poor and powerless. That we do not even notice this reveals our blindness to Jesus’ obvious bias.
Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called “structural sin” and “institutional evil”). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular “naughty behaviors,” which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture. Structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large organizations—including the Church—and governments get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. Yet individuals are condemned for committing these same sins. Such a convenient split will never create great people, nations, or religions.
Liberation theology, instead of legitimating the self-serving status quo, tries to read reality, history, and the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but from the side of the pain. Its beginning point is not sin management, but “Where is the suffering?” Our starting point makes all the difference in how we read the Bible. Jesus spends little time trying to ferret out sinners or impose purity codes in any form. He just goes where the pain is. I dare you to try to disprove that.
Gateway to Silence:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) in CAC Foundation Set (CAC: 2007), CD, MP3 download;
and Job and the Mystery of Suffering (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1998), 126.